Everything old is new again, and after the Twilight Zone reboot helmed by Jordan Peele, another cult classic anthology TV series is back this week. Amazing Stories had a serious pedigree when it premiered on NBC in 1985. Steven Spielberg, probably the biggest name in Hollywood, was tapped as executive producer, and individual shows were directed by luminaries like Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Robert Zemeckis, and more. The series lasted just two seasons, as it never scored huge ratings against its budget, but it obviously meant enough to Spielberg that it’s coming back on Apple TV+. To get ready for the new series, here are our picks for the eleven best stories from the 80s original.
The Eternal Mind
In the 1980s, the concept of digitizing your mind was almost unknown, so this episode is way ahead of the sci-fi curve. Jeffrey Combs stars as a scientist who is terminally ill and frantically struggling to finish his grand project – a man-machine interface that will allow his consciousness to live on after his body dies. Of course, he’s successful, but his new digital life isn’t quite what he imagined it to be. This is a clever, progressive, and touching episode that still feels fresh and new in 2020.
Scorsese’s sole Amazing Stories outing is one of the most psychologically harrowing installments of the series. Sam Waterston plays a horror writer who is bored by all the scary stuff he writes about. But when he sees a mysterious reflection in his mirror at home, it introduces an element of true terror into his life. With each reflection he gazes into, the deformed stalker there grows closer and closer. Mirror, Mirror is great because it’s just relentless – you barely have time to catch your breath before we move on to the next scare, and the ending is vicious and legitimately terrifying.
Before Brad Bird found fame at Pixar, he helmed the only animated episode of Amazing Stories. “Family Dog” saw Bird, who had been fired from Disney a few years back for advocating that the company take more risks, deliver his take on a classic family sitcom. The Binsfords live in a nondescript suburb with their harried hound, who the show revolves around. Three short narratives compose this episode, with the third – where the dog fails to protect the house from burglars – the best. Family Dog is interesting on its own merits and beautifully animated, but what makes it really compelling is that it debuted just months before the first Simpsons segment on the Tracey Ullman Show, a series that it has myriad commonalities with.
A classic setup for these kind of tales involves an ordinary Joe who is trapped in a messy situation that takes a supernatural twist. This early episode is a great example – Tom Harrison is an actor playing a mummy in a horror flick, but he needs to leave the set when his pregnant wife goes into labor. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have time to get out of costume and makeup, and the town they’re filming in has an urban legend about the walking dead coming back to haunt them. The townsfolk turn out in force to bedevil our poor protagonist as he tries to meet his new kid, and they’re eventually joined by a real mummy just to make things even more frantic.
Go To The Head Of The Class
Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and Christopher Lloyd re-unite after Back To The Future for this very Twilight Zone-esque episode. Lloyd plays an overbearing, pretentions English professor who butts heads with a horror-obsessed student. When the kid discovers a curse recorded backwards on a heavy metal album (and how 80s is that?), things start to go wildly out of control. Heads get severed, zombie bodies lurch about, and everybody gets what they deserved – sort of. Extremely fun Stan Winston special effects are the cherry on top of this zany horror romp.
Gather Ye Acorns
Unlike other anthology shows, Amazing Stories didn’t shy away from straight-up fantasy concepts, and “Gather Ye Acorns” is one of the most famous examples. A post-Return of the Jedi Mark Hamill stars as Jonathan Quick, who has just graduated from high school in the 1930s and, instead of pursuing a career, just wants to buy a nice car and chill out for a little bit. His mindset has been informed by the advice of a tree troll he met as a child, who told him not to work hard because “the world needs more dreamers.” However, as we go forward in time we learn that maybe the creature didn’t have the best intentions for young Mr. Quick – or did he? We won’t spoil the ending, but it’ll certainly resonate for us geeks.
Spielberg directed this double-length episode set during World War II. Belly gunner Jonathan is a bomber crew’s lucky charm, but superstition holds that it’s cursed for anybody to go up for the 24th time. When their plane is damaged in a dogfight, he gets trapped in his compartment with the landing gear damaged, so the plane can’t land without killing him. Running out of fuel, the crew frantically tries to find a solution. The ending of this one is remarkably divisive – we won’t spoil it here, but depending on your state of mind you’ll find it either incredibly charming or ludicrously silly. The great performances and intense atmosphere make “The Mission” well worth seeking out.
Remote Control Man
The overall tone of Amazing Stories was all over the place, whipping from serious drama to screwball comedy from episode to episode. One of our favorites from the second category is “Remote Control Man,” directed by Bob Clark. Great character actor Sydney Lassick played one of his best roles, as a henpecked husband who finds solace in the television. When his wife throws out his beloved set, he gets a new TV with some… unusual features. It’s able to zap people from the screen into reality, so he swiftly replaces his wife with a pageant model and his awful kids with… Face from The A-Team and Gary Coleman. It’s dated, ludicrous, and very silly but also something that no other show on TV would even attempt.
From a story by horror legend Richard Matheson, “The Doll” won John Lithgow an Emmy for his performance as John Walters, a lonely bachelor who has never been able to connect with people. He stops in to a dollmaker’s shop to buy a birthday present for his niece, but when she rejects the doll he doesn’t take it back for a refund, but instead keeps it in his house. He names it “Mary” and starts talking to it, eating meals with it and more. This could be – and sometimes seems like it’s going to be – a setup for a nasty psychological horror twist, but one thing that made Amazing Stories so unique was its ability to get sweet and sentimental instead, which this one definitely does.
The Amazing Falsworth
One of the all-time great episodes, “The Amazing Falsworth” stars Gregory Hines as a stage magician with a mind-reading nightclub act where he tells people things about themselves while blindfolded. The twist is that he actually can pick up people’s thoughts, which is great for the gig but bad for his sanity. During one show, a serial killer is in the audience and Falsworth picks up on his homicidal deeds – but can’t identify him in real life, because he was blindfolded. Eventually, he convinces a detective to help him and the pair track the killer to his home for a hell of a twist ending.
No Day At The Beach
Shot in gorgeous black and white, this World War II story is one of the series’ most affecting. A boatload of American soldiers are on their way to Normandy to fight the Nazis, and their nerves are starting to wear on them in the boat. Director Lesli Linka Glatter excels with this story, which is significantly more down to earth than the rest of the series. When the butt of the platoon’s jokes finds himself having to save the day on the battlefield, it presents a clever character study bolstered by lovely visuals and some solid, understated performances, including a pre-fame Charlie Sheen.